he Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest and longest coral reef system, stretching for 2,300km from the tip of Cape York in the north to Bundaberg in the south. Comprising 3,000 separate reefs and some 900 continental islands and coral cays, it’s one of the world’s great natural wonders. Home to over 1,500 species of fish, abundant marine life and over 200 types of birds, it’s also one of Australia’s greatest conservation successes. A World Heritage Area since 1981 (the world’s first reef ecosystem to be recognised by UNESCO), it is highly protected and one of the best-managed marine areas on Earth. Facts and information The Great Barrier Reef is breathtaking to behold – and so is its size and scope. A vast interplay of ecosystems and their inhabitants, the reef is home to around 600 types of hard and soft corals. Hard corals form the ‘backbone’ of the reef, providing a living home for a huge range of marine animals, from fish and molluscs to plankton and algae. The annual coral spawning is an incredible sight: think of it as an underwater snowstorm, when millions of coral release eggs and sperm into the sea to reproduce, ensuring the survival of the reef. Islands on the Great Barrier Reef The reef’s islands range from tiny rocky outcrops, to sprawling national parks of untouched rainforest, to exclusive private resorts fringed with powder-white beaches. In the centre, the Whitsundays – an archipelago of 74 islands – can accessed by flying directly to Hamilton Island (the islands’ main hub), or by ferry from Airlie Beach, the closest hub on the mainland. Stay on popular Whitsunday holiday locations like Hamilton Island and Long Island’s Palm Bay Resort. On the Southern Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island is an eco-haven, with turtle nesting sites and an on-site research station. At the northern end of the reef, Lizard Island – 240km north of Cairns – is home to an ultra-luxe retreat with just 40 rooms.